A Summit to the Death

OXFORD – As many feared and most expected, the just-concluded European summit left much to be desired. Once again, Europe’s national leaders showed themselves to be in denial about what underlies the eurozone’s economic, banking, and sovereign-debt crises, and thus hopelessly unable to resolve them.

One lesson that the world has learned since the financial crisis of 2008 is that a contractionary fiscal policy means what it says: contraction. Since 2010, a Europe-wide experiment has conclusively falsified the idea that fiscal contractions are expansionary. August 2011 saw the largest monthly decrease in eurozone industrial production since September 2009, German exports fell sharply in October, and now-casting.com is predicting declines in eurozone GDP for late 2011 and early 2012.

A second, related lesson is that it is difficult to cut nominal wages, and that they are certainly not flexible enough to eliminate unemployment. That is true even in a country as flexible, small, and open as Ireland, where unemployment increased last month to 14.5%, emigration notwithstanding, and where tax revenues in November ran 1.6% below target as a result. If the nineteenth-century “internal devaluation” strategy to promote growth by cutting domestic wages and prices is proving so difficult in Ireland, how does the EU expect it to work across the entire eurozone periphery?

The world nowadays looks very much like the theoretical world that economists have traditionally used to examine the costs and benefits of monetary unions. The eurozone members’ loss of ability to devalue their exchange rates is a major cost. Governments’ efforts to promote wage cuts, or to engineer them by driving their countries into recession, cannot substitute for exchange-rate devaluation. Placing the entire burden of adjustment on deficit countries is a recipe for disaster.